MOSCOW — The first day of the World Cup’s round of 16 is behind us. Fourteen teams remain alive, there are 14 games to go, and now we can get on with enjoying the remainder of this engrossing tournament and then crowning a champion. The incessant, unresolvable GOAT debate will get a welcome rest.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi—or in the interest of fairness and precision, Portugal and Argentina—have been eliminated. They all lost to better teams on Saturday, thus ending the 2018 World Cup runs, and perhaps the World Cup dreams, of two generational icons.
Their sensational careers have played out (and been consumed, debated, marketed, celebrated and overanalyzed) in concert and contrast. They’ve swapped titles, individual honors and awkward handshakes, going head-to-head on either side of soccer’s greatest club and sportswear rivalries. Ronaldo, 33, and Messi, 31, are very different men. They’ve got different skills, approaches, personalities and physiques, and they seem to be motivated by different things. Those variations, along with their achievements, create a sporting and cultural inkblot test that fans and media outlets (including this one) can’t ignore.
But Saturday, they tripped on a common thread. Soccer is a team sport, and in the international game, you’re forced to play with what you’ve got. Their clubs can recruit, bid, spend and poach. Their countries’ fortunes are subject to the state of the domestic player pool and the competence of their respective federations. There’s only so much even soccer gods can do about that. It was clear even before Saturday that the current versions of Argentina and Portugal aren’t close to championship-caliber.
Antoine Griezmann, Benjamin Pavard, Kylian Mbappé (twice), Ángel Di María, Gabriel Mercado, Sergio Agüero, Edinson Cavani (twice) and Pepe all managed something Saturday that neither Messi nor Ronaldo has ever done. They scored in a World Cup knockout match. As a result of all those goals and at the end of a gripping pair of games, France defeated Argentina, 4-3, and Uruguay beat Portugal, 2-1. The winners move on to next Friday’s quarterfinal in Nizhny Novgorod.
Les Bleus, and specifically the 19-year-old Mbappé, tore sluggish Argentina apart. How many of Messi’s teammates could start for the victors? And Uruguay simply was a better, more well-structured side. La Celeste play with a consistent team concept. It’s based on shape, commitment, a sturdy spine and the unique attacking partnership between Cavani and Luis Súarez. A modest team becomes a whole greater than the sum of its parts. That’s going to be tough for a single player to beat, no matter how many billboards he’s on.
So Messi and Ronaldo head home, taking their rivalry and the endless and derivative conversation about their legacies with them. They lost, even though they aren’t losers. And they aren’t losers, even though they’ve never scored at the business end of a World Cup. They’ve done enough to be legendary, but clearly not enough to definitely separate one from the other—or convince the world to stop trying. That was the case before this World Cup and it’s the case as they exit.
Ronaldo started better in Russia, tallying a hat trick in a gripping 3-3 tie against Spain to open the group stage. Messi started his tournament by missing a potential game-winning penalty against Iceland. But Messi finished stronger, scoring a spectacular goal against Nigeria to send Argentina through, then notching two assists on Saturday. Conversely, Ronaldo was quiet and cautioned. Had Portugal won, he would’ve been suspended for the quarterfinals.
Who had the better World Cup? You could make a case for either. And you will, if there’s a player you already prefer. Who’s been better for his national team? You could make a case for either. And you will, if there’s a player you already prefer.
Messi’s never won a senior title with Argentina, as we’re reminded every time the camera cuts to Diego Maradona being an imbecile. But Messi’s got a World Cup golden ball in his trophy case. He’s played in four major finals, and never got knocked out of the group stage of a World Cup. He may have done some of his best work during the current cycle, scoring seven of Argentina’s 19 qualifying goals then helping an old, turgid team to the round of 16 here in Russia.
Ronaldo has what Messi doesn’t, a national team trophy, thanks to Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph. For some, that ends the debate. Or, that trophy proves the point that one man can’t produce a title. Ronaldo scored just one goal in Portugal’s four knockout matches two summers ago (and it came against Wales), and he played just 25 minutes of the 120-minute final against France. That day, Portugal won without him. Does Ronaldo get the credit? Do Gonzalo Higuaín’s misses in Santiago, Rio de Janeiro and East Rutherford ruin Messi’s legacy?
Again, if you have an opinion, you likely already have a favorite. And no evidence to the contrary is going to change your mind. And that’s fine. Soccer and history are subjective.
But that’s why the argument is so exhausting, even if it’s not entirely pointless. As a proxy for the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry, it’s used to troll the opposition. It can be a fun debate, an excuse to demonstrate your nuanced soccer intellect to some simpleton, or the inspiration to compile some jaw-dropping highlights. But it will never be resolved, and it’s become rather clichéd, because there is no answer. We can’t even agree on definitive GOAT criteria, and that’s after Messi did that ridiculous photo shoot and Ronaldo responded with a not-so-subtle beard stroke.
Maybe it will continue forever (unless Mbappé wins everything), with each side cherry-picking the statistic of their choice to emphasize a point that can’t be proved. The Messi-Ronaldo debate has been the sport’s soundtrack for a dozen years. It’ll be a relief as the narrative here in Russia, at least for the next two weeks, focuses on something else—on better teams and players who will seize their moment. We’ll catch up with Messi and Ronaldo when La Liga restarts in August.
It’s unclear whether either has an international future. Ronaldo is older, but remains in impressive physical condition and doesn’t seem to be as emotionally exhausted playing for his country as his rival (again, see Maradona). Messi, meanwhile, could hang on for just one more year in order to have another crack at a trophy. There’s a Copa América in Brazil next summer.
Hopefully they both continue. They’re immense fun to watch, and that enjoyment doesn’t depend on deciding that one is definitively better or GOATier than the other. It doesn’t matter. Nothing changes, no matter how many times the conversation is had. And in a way, the entire dialectic unfairly reduces the tournament, their teams and both men (who've now been pressured into participating). If Messi is from Mars and Ronaldo is from Mt. Olympus, then goats—or, the debate that animal represents—live beneath both.